social learning

Amost-Educon Open Content Creation and Remix Fest - Thursday, January 24, 2013 at Science Leadership Academy

You (yes, you!) are invited to a full day of open content creation, curation, remixing, and distribution with a group of content, technology, and open learning geeks.

Eventbrite - Amost-Educon Open Content Creation and Remix Fest

The event will be held Thursday, January 24th, from 10 to 4, in the library of Science Leadership Academy, the day before Educon begins. The event is free; please sign up to give us a sense of who will be coming. While the event is free, we are also asking participants to make a donation to Science Leadership Academy's Home and School Association. SLA's generosity in allowing us to use this space is pretty awesome.

Three Leaves and a Berry

As is probably obvious from the title of this post, we've been struggling with what to call this day, largely because the process of creating open content is part hackfest, part content authoring, part content curation, part old-fashioned work day. We'll be combining these elements, covering how to use Creative Commons licenses, and how to prepare and distribute resources in reusable formats. At the end of the day, we should all have sets of resources we can use and share whenever we want, and connections with people who want to continue to do this work.

If you are a teacher who is developing curriculum or class resources, come and work with us.

If you work at a school that wants to reduce the costs and inflexibility of traditional textbooks, come and work with us.

If you have been interested in learning more about open content, but didn't know where to start, come and work with us.

If you want to make sure that your students can have access to course materials over the web, on an iPad, on a Kindle, or on any mobile device, come work with us.

If you have been creating open content for the last 20 years, and want to keep on doing what you know works, come work with us.

The day will be spent creating and remixing open content; as we have been planning the event, there are four general goals:

  • At the end of the day, participants will walk out with resources they can use the next time they are teaching;
  • Create and extend connections between teachers who want to do more work with open content in the future;
  • Begin to create and curate a library of high quality, easily reusable openly licensed content;
  • Plan additional open content remixathons throughout the year; these can be virtual events, face to face events, or any combination thereof.

In the last year, we have seen some great community initiatives around open content. In particular, the work from Finland where a group of math instructors crowdsourced a textbook over a weekend provides a good example to emulate. A key takeaway - and an element that often goes overlooked in coverage of successful crowdsourcing events - is the planning and organization required before the event. This planning helps ensure that when the crowdsourcing begins, people already have a sense of what needs to be done, and who they will be working with. We are glad to help organize and coordinate introductions between people working on similar projects, and if people want to get working before the event, we'd be glad to help coordinate that as well.

So, what are you waiting for? Sign up, and get to Science Leadership Academy on January 24th!

If you have any questions about the event, or how to get involved, please leave them in the comments or email me at bill (at) funnymonkey (dot) com.

Image Credit: "Three Leaves and a Berry" taken by Donnie Nunley, published under an Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike license.

Making Badges Easier

In the Mozilla Badges Google group, there is an ongoing conversation about the terminology around badges. This post incorporates some thoughts and ideas expressed in that thread.

At the outset, I want to emphasize that there are lot of details regarding the technical implementation that complicate what I am about to say. But, for the last couple years, when I have talked with people about badges, there has been consistent confusion about how badges work, and about how they differ from other means of measuring and demonstrating learning.

I also want to emphasize that badges done well can play a role in how demonstrating learning will evolve. As to those who advocate for badges as a means of injecting game theory into the learning process - well, that's a different conversation. I'm inherently skeptical of approaches that blur the line between motivating learners and infantilizing the learning process.

We don't need no stinkin' badges

For those completely unfamiliar with the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure (also known as the OBI), here are a few useful links:

Currently, the badge infrastructure has a few components to it: Issuers define badges that can be earned. Once someone earns a badge, it can be baked. The baked badge can then be stored in a backpack, if the person earning the badge makes the conscious decision to store it in a backpack. The owner of the backpack can define some visibility settings, if visibility settings are allowed by the web site that contains the backpack. Alongside backpacks and badge issuers, the OBI also defines display sites.

From and end user place, this is more complex than it needs to be. End users who want badges really care about two things: earning badges, and displaying badges. The notion of a backpack is an interesting metaphor, but while the metaphor makes sense from a technical place (backpacks hold badges) it clouds the issue of how badges work, and it introduces complexity that gets in the way of badges being used more broadly.

When both learners and organizations come to badges, one of the first questions they ask is how badges differ from credentials, diplomas, certificates, or the other tools currently used to mark when learning has occurred. This is the primary question that people new to badges need addressed. Currently, addressing that question requires a technical vocabulary lesson before the actual utility of badges can be addressed.

Eliminating the backpack (as both a technical requirement and a metaphor) would simplify things. Without the backpack, we have a system where badges are earned and badges are displayed. The logic of how badges are earned, stored, and displayed could be left where they belong: to the sites where badges are both earned and displayed.

Image Credit: Screencap from Blazing Saddles from Lady of the Cake.

The Gift Of The iPad Has Nothing To Do With The iPad

The biggest gift of the iPad to the education space has nothing to do with the iPad, and everything to do with the mediocre tools to manage a fleet of iPads.

Over the last several weeks, as schools have returned to session, there have been a slew of discussions about how to best control the apps on iPads, how to provision student accounts (even though the App store appears to actively prevent mass account creation), how to prevent student work from being wiped out, replacement cycles, and other edge cases as personal devices get shoehorned into an institutional management process.

Purchase Not Allowed

The stories have been pretty incredible - one school built a Filemaker database (which, even as I say it, feels like a contradiction in terms) to manage redemption codes for apps purchased through the Volume Purchasing Program, and then distributed through the Configurator. Using this custom built system, an app could be requested by a teacher, and it only required around an hour of an IT person's time to push the app to the iPad. One hour to install an app is what success looked like.

Other stories included the Volume Purchasing Program failing unpredictably and intermittently - some of the nicer things said about the Volume Purchasing Program included statements pointing out that you could generally get it to work if you only used Safari, and cleared your cache before every attempted use of the program. This type of flexibility exemplifies the ease of use that Apple is known for.

Some schools do not make an effort to exert centralized control over the devices, and in these situations, the management headaches are often supplanted by fears from teachers and parents that the iPads will be used "inappropriately" for "non-educational" things. It's worth remembering that before technology, students were always perfectly focused, and could never be distracted from doing exactly what the teacher felt was important.

All kidding aside, because centralized control of the devices really aren't possible, more schools have become more open to less control. It's a shift that smartphones started (and that educational experts have been talking about for at least the last 100 years) but the shift definitely gained more mainstream acceptance with iPad adoption.

And people are seeing that great things happen when learners are granted autonomy. And when the iPads are gone, hopefully the autonomy will remain.

Why Is Your LMS All Up In My Learning?

The following scenarios all describe events in which people learn online, or in a blended learning environment:

Learning is part of all of the interactions described above. Yet, some of these interactions won't fit into the systems that claim to manage learning, and/or the systems that assess the worth of that learning.

In very general terms, the current crop of learning management systems are designed to reduce a complex process down to a series of manageable steps. This reduction makes it more difficult to account for informal learning alongside more traditional learning. But, as more learning occurs in informal ways or in informal settings, the shortcomings of how learning is "managed" gets in the way of people learning.

A. Learning as Conversation

If we look at learning as a series of conversations, one way of looking at a simple type of learning activity is:

A person did this thing in this place.

This is analogous to a something like twitter, an annotated bibliography or list of works consulted, or a person telling a story.

B. A Conversation, with Metadata

We can add more detail to the conversation to make things more clear:

A person did this thing in this place about this topic.

The addition of metadata (aka tags, keywords, etc) makes this more like a blog post, a forum post, or a reblogging platform like Tumblr or Posterous. This could also be thought of as a single piece in a working (or in-progress) portfolio.

C. A Conversation, with Metadata, and Reflection

Predictably, more detail changes the nature of the conversation:

A person did this thing in this place about this topic and learned these things.

The addition of a reflective component (some thoughts/context about what the initial conversation means over time) adds a level of analysis that is critical for self-directed learning, or as part of peer-supported assessment. The addition of reflection also converts the information to something that resembles a page in a presentation portfolio.

D. All of the Above, Situated in a School

Grades aren't essential for learning, but they have their uses:

A person did this thing in this place about this topic and learned these things for this course and earned this score.

E. The Components

  • Person: First name, Last name, Email, Password, UserID
  • This Thing: Title, Description (a combination of any of: excerpt, original text)
  • This Place: a url and/or geolocation data
  • This Topic: Keywords/Tags/Folksonomy
  • Learned: an analysis/reflection/notes about the event
  • This Course: a course name; only needed if the learning is part of a formal learning experience (aka school)
  • This Score: grade information, ranging from a letter grade to a percent to X earned points out of Y possible points.

F. Next Steps

Current learning management systems pay a lot of attention to pieces of traditional schooling that may or may not be relevant to all types of learning. By focusing on a system that only stored key elements of the interactions that comprise learning, we'd free ourselves up show learning in ways that actually reflect how the learning occurred.

If the core system just focused on interactions, learners would be free to learn as they best saw fit. This lightweight structure would work equally well for a learner working in a MOOC, a learner writing a series of self-directed research studies, to a learner in a traditional setting.

The data stored in this system could be exposed to external systems so that different types of assessment could take place, as needed, but these assessments could live independent of the core system.

If we pare back what people consider an LMS to a core set of data points, people could learn as they wanted, and that learning could be contextualized and assessed as needed. We need to remove the systems that interfere with our learning.

Can Students Be Makers When Teachers Are Consumers?

I recently came across a discussion initiated by a technology director in the first year of an iPad rollout. The release of iOS5 rendered some key apps inoperable; due to how Apple manages upgrades on mobile hardware, it can be difficult to adequately test new software, let alone schedule a bulk upgrade.

Given that pieces of an academic program can be rendered inoperable via an upgrade you are not empowered to stop/opt out of, how reliable do iPads feel?

While most of these upgrades are painless, do the opportunities offered by an iPad justify having the release schedule of an external company potentially trump or disrupt the schedules you, your teachers, and your students have worked out?


I'm definitely not advocating a return to a centralized, fully controlled environment, but just as I wouldn't tolerate anyone coming in and painting my kitchen without asking, I have an equally hard time being told that I have no say over the environment of a piece of hardware I (theoretically) own.

So, if we own the hardware we use to create, and someone else controls access to the tools we use to create, where does that leave us with respect to ownership of our creative work? If the only way we can make use of the work we have created is through a device that is a closed environment with respect to hardware, running software that is beyond our reach, how can we make any claims that we have created something over which we have control? In this situation, our data is accessible to us only if we keep paying for hardware we don't control, and keep paying for software we might not need or want any more?

We encourage students to be makers and creators; these exhortations lack the strength they could have when they are based on a foundation of consuming what we are given. By using a closed system, and allowing our programs to be shaped by the whims of an entity who is completely oblivious to the day to day needs of of the programs we have laid out, we model an external locus of control.

How can we encourage students to be makers when some of our behavior models straight consumption?

Image Credit: "Lock" taken by BlackmanVision, published under an Attribution-Non Commercial - No Derivatives license.

Social Learning and The Freedom To Change Your Mind

Last week, Fred Bartels posted that, over the holiday break, he was going to start doing some brainstorming about an online progressive school. In response to some initial questions, Fred started to flesh out his vision.

I responded within the thread; this post is an attempt to extend and clarify some of those thoughts.

Cats in a Bowl

Part of the puzzle in defining and "building" an online school requires that we address issues related to reuse, redistribution (of both lessons and completed projects), and possibly recontextualization/remixing of lessons and materials created as part of the learning process.

Lessons, in this context, are really semi-structured exercises that can support a broad array of research-based, project-based experiences.

Assessment shifts from teachers determining what a student needs to know to a student articulating what they learned and considered valuable from the process.

The role of the teacher (and really, every other learner in the system) is to help people spot the gems that arise from their experiences.

Portfolio-based assessment is more readily suited toward documenting this type of experience than multiple choice tests, but whatever form the assessment takes, the assessment should highlight the learner's understanding of their experience as the starting point for determining what has been learned. Toward that end, assessment should include reflection back on how a learner has progressed, and part of schooling would need to include methods to support students as they identify where they have grown, and where they need work.

When it comes to developing a system/web site/web application to support this type of learning, there are many systems that already do this (and a bunch that don't - as a general rule, any system predicated on a hierarchy where the teacher controls a class-like space will be less than satisfying). Rather than getting too deep into the mechanics of designing another one, it might be more instructive to look at common elements/habits of mind that support this type of learning.

The communities, and their output, are endlessly iterative. They support a never ending stream of questions, responses, conversations, outside inputs, search, recontextualization of existing sources, original research, publishing, revision, and so on.

Learners can choose to dip into the stream and highlight what they consider important or valuable; over time these highlighted/curated/researched/freshly articulated/endlessly revised objects become what some people might call "finished." Personally, I think it is more accurate to call them snapshots, as we should all reserve the right to change our minds as we discover more.

But the key to any system like this is the underlying expectation that learning never ends, can always be revised, and should always be subject to new input from various sources. A system that supports this type of learning should simplify the discovery of these new sources of information, and the publication and revision of snapshots of learning in progress.

Image Credit: Photo "Baby Cats" taken by randomix, published under a Non-Commercial/No Derivatives/Attribution license.

The Myth of the Edupreneur

In many of the conversations around changing the current educational system, the rhetoric and approaches borrow heavily from the corporate world. In many cases, processes and strategies that have been used with inconclusive outcomes in corporate America are touted as solutions that will fix the problems that plague education: a short list includes merit pay (which worked really well among hedge fund managers), performance management, corporate-style layoffs as a means to eliminate "underperformers," and streamlining the means to outsource school management to for-profit companies.

Instability creates opportunity, and the current state of public education is nothing if not unstable. As a result, businesses are getting increasingly interested. Where business goes, marketing is not far behind, which invariably nets us a new buzzword: the edupreneur. The narrative around the edupreneur combines the mythology of the entrepeneur as a financial cowboy, an individual with the grit to take chances, bend the rules, and buck authority; with the equally potent mythology of the socially conscious company - a business venture with the ethics to, occasionally, put principles above profits.

I came across an example of this type of edupreneurial venture recently in the form of an interview with the founders of Notehall, a company that serves as a marketplace for students that want to sell their class notes. It's remarkable only because it is such a common example of what passes for an idea in the space where people actually believe the world of education is bereft of any creative or generative thought.

The blog post that contains the interview starts with a video of the company founders on a show called Sharktank (as an aside, I had no idea this show existed, and I'm a little upset to have had my bubble burst). The video is included here for your viewing pleasure:

The actual interview that follows is the standard breathless prattle that most of these things are; basically, PR talking points masquerading as actual conversation. But one line really stands out:

Question: What do you think education entrepreneurs need at this moment in the industry to be successful? Marketing? A good idea? A network?

Response: Mentorship/Network. A good team with an average idea will eventually discover a successful business if the right hands are helping guide them and see opportunities.

In a world where solutions are valued primarily for their ability to enrich a select few, and secondarily for their ability to benefit an undefined many, this philosophy defines what people consider innovative. In other words, a "good" innovation allows a company to find an unexploited niche and profit from it - the quality of the innovation is defined by the size of the profit.

To be absolutely clear, there is nothing wrong from profiting from your work. And, if you have an idea, a dream, a vision, or a talent that you want to expand into a company, by all means, follow the dream. But bring your A game. Don't delude yourself that the educational world needs another mediocre idea with glossy marketing copy. If people want that, they can trawl the vendor floor at ISTE. But classrooms deserve better.

However, when a company gets too invested in a single solution - or worse yet, a single technological intervention - to a complex problem, much money can be wasted.

This problem can be compounded in companies heavily funded by venture capital money. An interview in FastCompany between Anya Kamenetz and Phoenix Wang alludes to the financial pressures at play; this quotation is from the second page:

There are $600 billion in public dollar investments in education around schools. But there's a disconnect between the school districts who make the purchases and the students who are supposed to use it. So oftentimes what gets pushed down to students is not really aligned with their interests.

At the same time, private and institutional investors are really interested in emerging products, but they're constrained by institutional purchasing. VCs need big exits, so they end up taking less risk.

You generally will not find much argument about the need for learning being a lifelong need. None of us ever reach a point where we can afford to stop learning, growing, or expanding.

However, the needs of people interested in profiting off the process of our learning are completely dissimilar: they want the biggest return possible, over the shortest time period. This cultural disconnect helps explain why the ideas of the business world clash with the ethos of the education world.

And, as the international financial markets still attempt to recover from the greed and excesses of the banking industry, maybe we have it backwards: perhaps education should step in and help protect these poor business folks from their own lack of understanding about the world in which we live.

I'm Doing It

This December 10th through the 12th, I'll be at the Do It With Drupal seminar in New Orleans. The name of the seminar notwithstanding, a quick run through the speakers list and the sessions shows that this seminar offers a solid blend of social web, web communities, and developing web trends, in addition to sessions on Drupal use and development.

Drupal use within education is on the rise; if you are already using Drupal, thinking about using Drupal, or contemplating ways of making your site more effective, this conference will have something for you. To receive a 10% discount off the registration, use the EDUCATION discount code as you checkout.

If you're going to the conference and want to meet up, feel free to drop a line in the comments. I look forward to seeing you there!

Using Drupal in Education, Training, and (Some) Next Steps

For a good portion of 2008, I have been writing a book on using Drupal in Education. It has been a pretty incredible process, filled with rewards and challenges I didn’t envision at the outset.

Among the challenges: I began writing the book when Drupal 6 core was still in active development, and the contributed modules featured in the book did not yet exist in their D6 versions. As a consequence, I ended up writing two books to create one; the first version using Drupal 5 to help frame the scope of the book, and the second, final, version updated to reflect the improvements and changed processes in Drupal 6.

Among the rewards: a chance to see Drupal through fresh eyes. I’ve been working with Drupal for nearly four years now; writing a book targeted for people new to Drupal, and/or with a limited technical background, provided me the opportunity to slow down and examine procedures we had come to take for granted – things like adding a new content type, or adding a view. CCK and Views are critical to building a site within Drupal; we haven’t rolled a site out in the last couple years without these modules. The process of documenting their use helped me see the barriers that new users face when trying to learn these modules for the first time.

And while we are on the subject of Views, one of the other rewards of writing the book was being able to focus on the improvements between Views 1 and Views 2. The conversations and the development of Views 2 have been ongoing for over a year, and the work and effort has resulted in a tool that is more powerful while being easier to use. The ease of use of Views 2 in Drupal 6 shifts how we can develop, as Views 2 eliminates even more problems that used to require custom development.

The other realization I had throughout the course of writing the book centers around how we approach training in general, and Drupal-based training in particular. In discussions of training and usability, one main challenge revolves around identifying your audience: who are you training? What are their skillsets? What do they need to know to work effectively?

Most Drupal sites have at least three primary types of users: people who read content in the site; people who create content in the site; and people who maintain the structure of the site. There can (and usually are) overlaps between these roles, and some larger sites also have additional roles: for example, people who only add video content, or administrators who only edit/moderate content. And this is where things start to get interesting from both a training perspective and a book-writing perspective. Administrative tasks -- things like creating a new content type, building a navigational structure, configuring user profiles, configuring groups, etc -- are mostly strategies designed to meet needs. These strategies, once built into a site, provide a structure that people can use to do their work. The better these strategies have been executed, the easier it is to work within a site, and the more usable the site is for all stakeholders.

Which is all a long way of saying: site admins need to learn how to solve problems with Drupal. Other types of users shouldn't have to care. They are coming to the site to do work, and they shouldn't need to be bothered with *how* the site runs. From a training perspective, this results in multiple trainings around a single site

And with that said, the more we can simplify managing Drupal for site admins, the better. On more complex sites, we are already creating custom interfaces to make site administration easier, or less "drupal-ly."

Really, I'm still digesting the lessons (I think/hope) I have learned regarding Drupal, training, and usability. I'm going to be optimistic and assume that these thoughts will become more coherent, and if/when they do I'll share them here.

In the meantime, now that the heavy lifting involved in getting the book out is behind me, I'm looking forward to devoting more attention to other projects. In the upcoming weeks, we'll be doing some (much needed/long overdue) work with DrupalEd, and doing some more work with RSS Import (along these lines, but with an eye toward making this happen). We have some code that we have developed on some ongoing projects we need to release out, including some Drupal 6 code that can be used to create an amazingly flexible and simple online portfolio application. We're also still in the pipeline for the Knight-Drupal Initiative; as progress occurs I'll update this space.

It's Called Fair Use

Much discussion on the internet concerning the AP's new Pay By The Word policy. Gary Stager had this comment on Will Richardson's blog:

Why shouldn't journalists and publishers get paid for their work?

Here's a suggestion for edubloggers who believe that all intellectual property should be free - let's stop paying teachers.


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